Stephanie Gou (Gou Yao 勾尧) is a freelance writer based in the UK. As the mother of a daughter of pre-school age, she is looking out for good books, and has recently started reviewing children’s books from China. Her first review was about Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower (which she read in Chinese: 曹文轩：《青铜葵花》). The original review is in Chinese and available on WeChat. It’s interesting to see Bronze and Sunflower from Stephanie’s perspective, and, with her help, we’ve prepared an English version of it here.
As a child, I was a great reader, devouring Children’s Literature and Arts (the most reputable and best-selling magazine for children in China since the 1950s), and all kinds of books under the bed-covers. I read widely, including stories about cadre schools and stories set in the Cultural Revolution. Thanks to the pressure of schoolwork, I actually envied the children of that period, who were the same age as me, but didn’t have their parents breathing down their necks.
However, like the children in Damaidi who looked forward to the swarms of locusts, I didn’t know the reality of what I wished for. I was born “north of the camps” (in Saibei, towards Mongolia), a thousand miles from the reed lands that were “south of the river” (Jiangnan) where Bronze and Sunflower is set. I was a child of the ’80s, when China was opening up and full of hope.
Bronze and Sunflower (in Chinese)
Yet, there are scenes in Bronze and Sunflower that resonate with my childhood memories. For example, the holes in my granny’s earlobes that hadn’t closed up in the thirty years since she last wore earrings; my dad’s childhood friend telling us about the joss paper outside his granny’s house; my mum going on about my educational opportunities being ten thousand times better than her bitter-sweet memories; and the song “Beautiful Xishuangbanna” which had me in tears every time I heard it. This was the theme tune for Sinful Debt, one of the most popular TV series in the 1990s, in which five bright-eyed teenagers from Xishuangbanna, in southwest China, go to Shanghai to look for their parents. They are the children of “educated youth” – their parents had been sent as teenagers from the city to this remote region during the Cultural Revolution. But when the Cultural Revolution ended, the “educated youth” in this story went back to Shanghai, leaving their children behind, to start new lives, and sometimes new families, in the city. It was a tear-jerking dramatisation of Ye Xin’s 叶辛 novel of the same name 《孽债》 .
Then, at some point, I found I couldn’t stand books about the Cultural Revolution any more. It probably had something to do with coming overseas and realising that almost all the books that had been translated into English were about that period. Or meeting people who were interested in China, but always from the same limited perspectives — they were surprised that I didn’t wear a military uniform, were thrilled to meet An Only Child, and insisted on discussing The Private Life of You Know Who. Or discovering, on account of that book, that the author was exiled to the country where I wanted to be, the same country that was deciding whether or not to extend my visa. At that point, everything started to get complicated, even the simple pleasure of reading.
I recognised certain behaviour in Bronze and Sunflower. Living overseas without equal freedom of speech, I became as mute as Bronze and as well-behaved as Sunflower. I sat up straight, with the silent resistance of the underdog to any slight or pity. When you are weak, you feel sensitive, and you can only know what that’s like if you have experienced it yourself.
These days, Chinese people look completely different on the front pages of the western media, particularly after the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. The Chinese community in the UK has also changed, thanks to British immigration policies, which opened a door to skilled workers (since 2003), then to overseas graduates (since 2005), and then to millionaires/entrepreneurs, who could invest £2 million or create 10 jobs (since 2012), not to mention the Chinese tourists who spend about £2.7K per head. It seemed I had abandoned all unhappy memories relating to the Cultural Revolution, until I picked up Bronze and Sunflower.
The frustrations I’ve experienced living in the UK barely begin to compare with those of people who lived through the Cultural Revolution. And yet, my response was much the same as theirs: I avoided them, didn’t want to talk about them.
But, as Cao Wenxuan says in his essay at the back of the Chinese edition of Bronze and Sunflower, “parents sometimes think that they are helping their child when they steer them away from painful stories. But, when they do this, they sidestep the real feelings and situation of their child today, and they sidestep their own past.”
Parents born in the 1950s, who did their utmost for their children in the 1980s, mostly tried to hide their pain and act normally, like adults. But their inner child identifies with the characters: with Cuihuan when the teacher rips up her homework, with Gayu when his father gives him a beating, with Sunflower when she is orphaned and sent to live with another family, and with Bronze, who is poor and disabled.
Today, many new parents are reading about psychology and Western childcare. Some complain that their own parents were too busy to look after them and sent them to live with their grandparents, that love was in short supply, and that this has distorted their feelings about themselves and their parents. But how willing are we to learn what it was like for our parents as children, and to show any understanding towards them? We are trying to lay new paths for the future, for our own children, and deeply embedded stones from the past may trip us up if we don’t know how to deal with them.
Reading Bronze and Sunflower, I travelled back to my parent’s childhood, appreciating everything they suffered. I saw them not as parents, but as children — I saw their inner child. I wanted to give them a cuddle and “forgive” their “imperfect” personality and overbearing parenting. No one is perfect and we do need understand each other. This book is the best media.
I would highly recommend Bronze and Sunflower to readers who have a sweet life without the fate of humiliation, or readers who have been through humiliation and found peace, but definitely not to anyone who is currently suffering from it.